The Mentor Chapter Fourteen – our beautiful bag of gifts and talents

April 23, 2023

I’d like to take you back to Cambridge to show you a picture of your talent. The picture is of a bag. It can be any bag you like, but it is one you should care about very much and one that you will always carry with you.

The LBCambridge event that Lawrence inspired and which we first ran in 2006, runs twice each year (pandemics permitting) in April and September. The event is held in the Old Hall of Queens’ College, Cambridge. It was the original College dining hall dating from 1448 and is protected from the intrusions of the 21st century on one side by the River Cam and on the other side by a high brick wall with its repelling gates. To enter the inner sanctuary of the College and to be able to work in the Old Hall requires a short walk over the Mathematical Bridge that crosses the Cam into Cloister Court. Crossing the bridge is a mere twenty steps, but it is also a journey of several centuries. On one side of the bridge is the hustle and bustle of Cambridge as a place for visitors, casual punters and ice cream sellers, and on the other side is a tranquil closed haven of half-timbered buildings holding the outside world at bay and inviting all who enter to take their time for calm and peaceful reflection. Like no other place I know, this is where we can put down our cares and be open to share our thoughts and grow.

We gather in the Old Hall not to drive ambition, or to pump ourselves full of so called best practice ideology, or to puff ourselves up with tales of self-regarding deeds, but we gather to listen, and to share, and to pause, and to realise the power of the gifts and talents that we already own.

The event starts with a quote from Terry Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky:

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours… And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

People have often asked me what the event is about expecting a sort of agenda of current topics and meaningful this-and-that on strategy and operational blah and woo. In truth however I have always found it hard to say what the event is about, because it is always about the people in the room on the days that we are there. In the past I have been reduced to saying that the event is a hopeful and kind pause where we ask everyone there to be their true selves, able to ask for what they need and to share in the process of helping others to find what they need too. As a message it is kind of ok, but I am not sure that it is a very compelling or informative on its own. As the years have gone by, however, and as generations of lawyers have walked across that bridge, I am now certain what the event is about.

I need to explain this carefully.

The most precious thing we will ever own is our talent; that mix of gifts, skills, experiences and judgement that we use every day to make our difference. It is like a bag that is packed with all that we need to take us safely on our career journeys.

Our bag of gifts and talents will take us through decades of work and along the way it will help to shape our hopes and fears, as well as providing the means for us to feel fulfilled and to provide the material means to look after ourselves and those we love and care for. It is a miracle of sorts that through our entire lives we will accumulate memories, feelings and behaviours that offer sustenance for our needs in the moment when we need them, and which we can share, pass on and receive back in equal measure as well.

This beautiful bag of sadness and joy, of good moments and bad, is the story of us and the narration of our dreams fulfilled and still to be fulfilled. It is ours, always ours, and we must look after it so very well. As a result, I have come to realise that the so called contract of employment (that mostly neglected document that frames the relationship with our employers) is not the most important contract we make with the organisations that hire us. The real deal is that we agree to lend our companies our bag of gifts and talents for a period of time on the understanding that these treasured things will be used well and nurtured kindly.

At the heart of being employed is the shared hope that we will use our gifts and talents to help our companies succeed, and in return our employers will help us to put even more experience into our bag. When we leave, our bag of gifts and talents will be heavier and more valuable that ever before.

Our responsibility therefore, is always to look after our bag of gifts and talents like it really is the most precious thing in the world that we will ever own. We must protect it from people and environments that diminish us or prevent us from making the difference that it is our duty to explore. We must also take care to look after our minds and bodies, because to feel less than our talent is to delay or waste our potential. While tiredness can be the honourable result of exacting and testing hard work, exhaustion is something else that is far more corrosive. Worst of all, being made to feel small, inadequate, or unworthy, can live with us forever if we are not careful. To lose our confidence or to be intimidated by people or workplace cultures, reduces and breaks what we carry in our bag, and makes it so much harder for us to be ourselves. When we lend our bag of gifts and talents to others, we have a responsibility to notice harm and to value kindness. We must lend it well or take it back and move on to somewhere else.

Our journeys will always be fraught with risk as well as (hopefully) filled with joy. Once we have started to truly value our bag of gifts and talents, the next most important lesson to learn is that we should never try to travel far on our own. We need the love and understanding of our families, and others who care about us – our colleagues past and present, our mentors, bosses and friends. In turn we must learn to help them look after their gifts and talents, and we must know how to ask for their help when we need it too.

We need to find joy in kindness and not to be too precious about status, or the ephemeral brands we work for; we need to relish the journey with all its twists and turns, and to know we have all that we need, carefully packed away in our beautiful bag of gifts and talents. Then, when the time comes to look back, we will have travelled lightly without the burdens of others’ expectations, or short-term and mean ambitions. We have our bag of gifts and talents, and it is all that we need.

A career can then be navigated gently, explored adventurously and shared generously. There is a quote that captures the essence of my hopes for us all.

“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.” Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

The walk across the Mathematical Bridge will never be a stride into a two-day course on how to be a better lawyer; it is however a few steps on our journey where we unpack our beautiful bag of gifts and talents to see all that we have, to repack it with love and care and then to head back out into the world, knowing we have all that we need to be utterly and wonderfully remarkable.

To be continued

Take care. Paul xx

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